This op-ed was submitted by Chair of Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria, Adam Barnett.
Our CFA volunteers are among the best firefighters in the world. Every day they put their communities first, from highly complex bushfires to specialist response and structural firefighting in highly urbanised areas.
They are well trained, well exercised and are sought after across the country for their
knowledge and experience.
They are true professionals in every sense of the word; but as volunteers they do it without pay.
As their peak representative body, my organisation welcomes and appreciates the federal government’s intention to provide financial support for volunteer firefighters.
But we are worried that this initiative is misplaced and may have unintended and lasting consequences.
There are far better ways to support volunteers, reimburse expenses and support their employers and their communities.
What we want is for the federal minister David Littleproud, state minister Lisa Neville and our CFA volunteer representatives to work together to ensure state and federal government support and assistance can be tailored and targeted to best support our incredible volunteer firefighters in Victoria.
Volunteers are proud to be volunteers; that is the ethos they live by every day.
They work, train and deploy out of love for their communities. Their bravery and selflessness lie at the very heart of the enormous respect for and trust in them.
Volunteers, their families, employers and friends all pitch in to support emergency management volunteers, financially and in kind.
We work as a team with like-minded volunteers before, during and after disaster strikes.
The volunteer ethos defends millions of Australians, protecting lives and property from the ravages of fire and other emergencies, year after year.
And if we look after it well, it will continue to do so long after this fire season is over.
Therefore, it is vital we support and protect it in a way that does not undermine the very system and thinking on which we rely.
Long after announcements of new schemes, it is those on the ground who then have to make it work.
Saddling brigades and volunteers with additional administrative bureaucracy while they sort out who should and shouldn’t receive payment is an unwelcome distraction.
Instead, it is time we recognise and respect the incredible contribution that all emergency volunteers make to our communities.
The most common complaint I hear is about the unfairness of CFA volunteers having to pay for a fire services levy that funds the very service they are providing to the state for free.
Adding insult to injury is the expectation they then must fundraise for essential trucks and equipment to make up the difference between what the government funds and what they actually need to keep us all safe.
Long-term investment in more fire trucks, equipment, personal protective equipment and clothing is needed desperately.
And from a Commonwealth perspective, how about recognising emergency management volunteers as a special occupation that would allow any personal expenses incurred during the year to be tax deductible, just as employees can claim them now.
In Victoria alone, the CFA volunteer contribution is valued at more than $1 billion dollars a year.
Why not recognise part of that contribution as a tax-deductible donation?
And let’s not forget the employers and business sector who are often among the unsung heroes during these massive campaigns.
Many employers continue to cover wages for many of their staff deployed as volunteers, not just for fire but in relief and recovery.
The establishment of federal emergency service leave that would allow employers to claim for additional entitlements for their employees to take leave during declared emergencies would inject much needed support to grow and sustain Australia’s proud and
enduring volunteer movement.
Our message is simple. We are not saying no to additional financial support. We are grateful for it.
But please give CFA volunteers the courtesy and respect of involving them in the decision and working with us to deliver a more appropriate package that respects and protects our members and the precious volunteer ethos that Victoria relies upon.